Thursday, August 30, 2007

What I learned from Ray Spruance...

The more I think about what Eve Fairbanks wrote on Monday, the more I really appreciate what she is saying.

My historical teacher in the need for compromise though, is probably far less illustrious than Abe Lincoln. In fact, he's probably the least-known, yet most brilliant admiral of World War II, Raymond Ames Spruance.

Spruance was first thrust into history at the Battle of Midway - and that was the first place one should look to for lessons. Specifically, it was after the day's exchnge of airstrikes, which left Japan with four carriers sunk or in need of scuttling, while the Americans were trying to salvage USS Yorktown.

There were two options. The conventional wisdom held that he needed to continue heading west all night, so as to be in position to follow up his success on the first day. Spruance didn't do that, though. Instead, he headed east until midnight. Now, some might call that over-cautious, but it was the right thing to do. The Japanese attempts to force a night battle failed, and the battle had been won.

Fast forward two years. This time Raymond Spruance was commanding perhaps the most powerful task force in history as the United States was planning to liberate the Marianas. As the amphibious attacks started, the Japanese fleet came out to challenge the Americans.

In a sense, this is what was always wanted - a chance to attack and destroy the Japanese fleet. But at the same time, the landings needed to be protected. Spruance came up with a brilliant plan. The American carriers went on the defensive, and let the Japanese come to them - the result was a turkey shoot. The only American offensive push came from submarines, which bagged two carriers. The next day, the Americans pursued and attacked, sinking a third carrier.

The landings succeeded. The Marianas became bases from which the B-29s could operate - and ultimately, the places from which we launched the two airstrikes that ended World War II.

Spruance took a lot of heat - especially when his caution was compared to William F. Halsey's willingness to mix it up. Spruance was even denied the chance at a fifth star by a Congressman. But looking at what Spruance knew at the time, the compromises he made were the right decisions. Especially when the Japanese were able to take advantage of Halsey's agressiveness later in 1944.

I also get the sense that Spruance didn't really care about getting a fifth star. When Samuel Eliot Morison wrote the seventh volume of his History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, he described Spruance as the "victor of Midway". Morison would later note that Spruance, in commenting on the first draft of that book, requested that Morison change that to "who commanded a carrier task force at Midway". Morison let his original phrasing stand, and in a footnote, explained that those who read volume four would understand why he could not accomodate that request.

Ray Spruance was brilliant, he had a sharp eye, and he never cared who got the credit for getting things done. He was not perfect - and in fact, he was, in a sense, a product of his times. But his example is one I wish more people would follow.


Mike Burleson said...

I'm a big Spruance fan as well. And Halsey was so determined to be the anti-Spruance, he almost brought disaster at Samar when he was supposed to be defending MacArthur's landing forces.

Ken Prescott said...

Gary . . . go peddle crazy somewhere else.

Michael said...

I am another big Spruance fan. He won the big battles while not -- ahem -- running into two typhoons (and losing hundreds of men) or chasing a Japanese feint at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Halsey had his place, but was in no way suited to WWII strategic operations. I think Nimitz knew this.

As an aside, does anyone know why Congressman Vinson nixed Spruance's fifth star? It seems amazing that one Congressman could stop such a thing, especially since Halsey got his fifth.

Raymond A. Spruance: Class Act